Cult Of Lip’s current lineup is building a new frontier

The Madison-based shoegaze act discusses their long, winding history.
The members of Cult Of Lip are shown in the low light of Mobius Glen, their studio and practice space. They are standing against a wall, just underneath a window. A stained glass lamp is affixed to the wall in the upper left hand corner of the image. From Left to Right: Ronnie Lee, Hannah Porter, Terrance Barrett, and Emili Earhart.
The members of Cult Of Lip are shown in the low light of Mobius Glen, their studio and practice space.

The Madison-based shoegaze act discusses their long, winding history. 

A sea of icy blues and soft focus fades into a nearly imperceptible outline of Terrance Barrett as he sits behind his drums. Two title cards inform viewers that this is the music video for Cult Of Lip’s “Convene,” from their forthcoming album Marsha. Barrett’s drumming opens the song, with the full band kicking in after a few measures. What follows is a video awash in richly-saturated colors, exposure overlays, vintage film presentation, and a light coating of simplistic video effects. Heavy reverb layers over a characteristic blend of tenderness and aggression, with each of Cult Of Lip’s current members—bassist/vocalist Hannah Porter, guitarist Ronnie Lee, Emili Earhart on synth, and Barrett on drums—cycling through the frames bathed in blues, reds, yellows, and greens.

Ultimately, the colors coalesce into a head-swimmingly kaleidoscopic effect, subtly hinting at the history of the band’s current lineup. All of the members get pulled into each other’s orbits from different perspectives. It’s a conclusion that feels natural, a perfect end-cap to a simple premise. But, as with every conclusion, there was time and work that went into cultivating that feeling of naturalism. And a lot of dedicated control and artistic understanding; Lee handled the writing, direction, and cinematography on “Convene” while Porter contributed an assist on the mesmeric lighting. 

Lee has been the only true constant member of Cult Of Lip. In 2011, Lee was writing music in Minneapolis through a solo project called VATS. Over time, the project’s scope expanded, morphing into a full band. During that transitory period, Lee started dating multi-instrumentalist Hannah Porter, who would join the band within the first year of the pair’s romantic entanglement. By 2016, VATS had become Cult Of Lip—who have also gone by The Cult Of Lip but have largely dropped the “The” at present. 2016’s Right Now was the band’s first album under the new name, an album bristling with nervous energy that was bolstered by a more expansive sound.

In 2017, the band had further settled into their new sound on Your Feedback, with Lee and Porter operating as a true duo. Your Feedback also marked a significant shift that introduced Porter as a vocalist. By 2018, Cult Of Lip had established their sound and worked out a musical identity. Porter and Lee were joined on Your Feedback by drummer Eric Whalen, one of many past members who have spent time playing in the band. While the band’s current iteration seems to be one that Porter and Lee have joyfully embraced, there were still a number of musicians critical to the band’s development: drummer James Duke (whose history with the band stretches back to the VATS era), drummer Nik Esola (who can be heard on Right Now), Whalen, and synth player and electronic drummer Miles McClain (who handled some of the synth on Marsha and joined the band for several tours).

Formerly Madison-based and currently Upper Peninsula-based Kitschy Spirit has announced that it will be reissuing the past three Cult Of Lip EPs in a forthcoming cassette compilation.

In January 2023, Cult Of Lip released a music video for “Surrender,” the first single from Marsha, ending a roughly five-year drought of new releases for the band. “Surrender,” in some respects, also acted as an introduction to the band’s latest members, Barrett and Earhart. (Earhart has frequently contributed writing to Tone Madison over the years.) The video illustrates an integral part of the band’s recent history: the development of Mobius Glen, which serves as Barrett’s recording studio and the band’s practice space. Mobius Glen’s development has been progressing for multiple years, but has hit a number of recent high points with regards to functionality. It sits in an idyllic patch of land tucked away in Cambria, about an hour north of Madison. But take a few steps inside of the Glen and it feels like a different world. When darkness falls, the studio is designed to accentuate ambiance, using stained glass lamps Lee built to create a blue-green effect that emphasizes a dreamlike atmosphere.

Like many people in shoegaze-centered acts, Cult Of Lip’s members have a keen awareness of tonal balance. Each of the four members has also gained an understanding of one another through their past interactions in various other musical projects. All of this comes together in the band’s live show, which doesn’t pull any punches. Ear-splitting volume, punchy energy, and deliberate mood all take some sort of precedence, with the band’s four members carefully coaxing a wall of sound into something transcendent. Both on recording and live, it’s easy to get swept up in Cult Of Lip’s odd majesty. But in the more contextually direct presence of a live setting, that net effect of feeling awed by the music’s sweeping beauty is borderline inescapable. 

Cult Of Lip’s beating heart, for nearly 10 years, has been the creative relationship between Porter and Lee. Much like Cribshitter’s Karl and Christine Christenson, the couple have a far-reaching fondness for each other, and their mutual admiration is plainly evident. In a recent interview with the band, the pair would frequently finish each other’s thoughts in a cadence that suggests second nature. It’s a level of connectivity that elevates the band’s material in practice, and provides a strong example for the group’s other members to play off of. Thus far, Barrett and Earhart have been up to the task, providing perfect complements to the band’s central duo.

Tone Madison went to Mobius Glen in June to talk with all four current members about the band’s history, how the current version came together, Marsha, Mobius Glen’s continuing development, an “exorcist house” that delayed the band’s move to Madison, and the values of active listening.

Cult Of Lip’s next local performance will be on October 7 at Crystal Corner Bar with Heather The Jerk and Sex Scenes. That date will double as Marsha‘s LP release party. Pre-orders for the LP will go live on September 1 on the band’s Bandcamp. Marsha will be released through MPLS LTD.

Tone Madison: Since we’re here already, let’s start with the studio. How did Mobius Glen come together?

Ronnie Lee: I used to have a home studio. It was a live [recording] room in the basement. Terrance pitched in for a U-Haul with us [to relocate] all that stuff.

Hannah Porter: And the penguin. The penguin also came.

Terrance Barrett: The overseer of the live room. Makes sure everything’s taken care of.

Hannah Porter: He runs a tight ship. 

Recording equipment sits at the bottom right of the image, to its left is a small statue of a penguin. The penguin's positioned so that it is looking through a window from its place in a studio control room to the live room on the other side of the wall.
A penguin statue looks out over the live room at Mobius Glen.

Terrance Barrett: It was cool, we had just started hanging out, jamming. It felt like Christmas every single day. Because for a while [Ronnie and Hannah kept] being like “Oh, here’s some cables! Oh, here’s some panels!” It was super simple. The PA. So it’s cool, especially for a DIY project like this, to have [a] communal sort of agreement right away.

Hannah Porter:  That made it easier to chip away at things.

Terrance Barrett:  Yeah. Right. Because it’s just like, still, I don’t know, there’s still a lot of final touches to do. We want to do some trim and stain the wood on this, [to get] a darker color on those ceiling panels. But it’s coming together. Having everything work was just such a [project] because I’m not a super computer tech person. Luckily Ken [Sabbar] is, so we had him over here and he looked at it and got me going. But the new Apple architecture is a nightmare for audio stuff. At least for the audience that I have. Works great for everything else. [Laughing.]

Hannah Porter: Building from the ground up too, a lot of it has been like an experiment. Figuring out as we go what [we] need, you know? One of the first few practices we had here, it was still raw concrete flooring, no panels anywhere. It was like playing in a tin can. It’s come a long way and the live room sounds pretty damn good now when we practice.

Tone Madison: And it’s in a beautiful spot that feels a bit hidden, which is nice.

Hannah Porter: I suppose [Mobius Glen] has a [magical-but-ominous hideaway] vibe. It’s like people come out here, like “What is this address? Where am I going? Am I gonna get murdered in the woods?”

Terrance Barret: I do want some of that nondescript, well-known secret [reputation]. That’s why there’s not a window on the front.

Hannah Porter: This could be any other outbuilding or farm.

Terrance Barrett: There’s this photo of John Frusciante and Omar [Rodriguez-Lopez], during [the recording of The Mars Volta’s 2006 album] Amputechture, chilling outside this recording studio like learning guitar parts. And it’s like this wall. It’s just like a metal wall. The door’s right there. And there’s no windows or anything. And that is a cool vibe to have. No nonsense, just two rooms [where people can] focus. No TV, no video games, nothing. No internet. We are here to work on music and just do that. The internet thing may have to change. [Laughing.] 

But for now, it’s supposed to be a sanctuary. The name, it’s just a fantasy name. And it’s like a fantasy reality that you step into with a narrow scope of focus, for all your creative needs. It’s also therapy. [Laughing.] It was wild, with the pandemic, it was just like, so much was uncertain. Seemed like the world might actually collapse.  So kind of starting this project was like the one thing keeping my brain away from the potential apocalypse. You have to find a path forward through times like that.

A shot of Mobius Glen's live room shows drums with transparent blue shells on top of a rug near the back right corner of the room. Near the bottom of the image is a row of synths and equipment cases. Various speakers can be seen either mounted or on the ground. Audio panels can be seen meticulously positioned around the drums.
Mobius Glen’s live room.

Tone Madison: You recorded the record through, essentially, the span of the worst of the pandemic. Did you have to put things on hold for a bit during that process? 
Hannah Porter: It was a very drawn-out process.

Ronnie Lee: We started recording it in 2019 in our home studio in Minneapolis with [Eric Whalen] our old drummer. We started tracking a week before quarantine, I think we recorded drums for six of the songs with him.

Hannah Porter: Four or five songs maybe. And then Eric, he works at a public library. So he was in a high-risk position. So [we] couldn’t get together. We were in a true separation from him. He ended up recording the rest of the drum parts as things kept dragging [out]. [At a certain point it was] like if we want to get through this, we’re just gonna have to finish the rest of it.

Ronnie Lee: Yeah, I recorded drums for three or four tracks.

Hannah Porter: We had a pretty awesome setup during quarantine as far as like, we lived in just like a single-family home with two other roommates that we got along with really, really well. We had good yard space. So we were really in our own nice little bubble. As far as keeping some of the creative momentum going, I think it just got really tight. I think we burned out a little bit after we got some of the main tracking done. A lot of that was on my end. [I was] feeling really trapped in a quarantine rut. And I [had] no inspiration to write lyrics for all the songs. I was really dragging that process out. And then we decided we were gonna move, so that put a new hold on things. [And Ronnie] was digging into other projects.

Ronnie Lee: Yeah, I’ve been taking photos, film photos, for many years. I finally got a certificate in photography, through an online class. I got a certificate in music production too. And then I taught myself how to do stained glass. I kept picking up new hobbies, because for so many years music was all I did. And then all these other things I used to do just kind of fell by the wayside. But with not [being able to play] shows, the venue I worked at [closing], and the guitar shop I worked at [laying] me off, I started getting into these other creative endeavors a lot more. Which was super nice. I built a shed in our backyard.

Hannah Porter: For him, it was sort of this blossoming period of like, “How else can I apply my creativity?” And for me, I really struggled because I don’t thrive as much in a studio environment. I love playing shows, I love practicing and playing shows. And that’s how I like to keep my energy going as a musician, and so I think I struggled with only being in that environment. It took me a while to really get in the headspace of finishing the rest of my parts for the album. Moving was a really nice, refreshing catalyst. Even though we moved in the middle of quarantine, it was just enough of a shake-up in our lives that I started writing lyrics and pushing and it felt exciting again. Once we moved, we finished all of his guitar tracking and finally recorded all the vocal parts.

Ronnie Lee: We probably had like 85% of the album done by the time we moved out. It was just tracking. I had a lot of other guitars to add too and mixing. I remixed and remastered that album probably thousands of times. 

A small, stained glass lamp sits on a desk that's pushed against a window. The view out of the window shows rolling greenery. Grass and trees stretch out into the distance. On the desk is an audio mixer. A few speakers can be seen, as well as computer display monitors.
Mobius Glen’s control room and the scenic view it offers.

Hannah Porter: Yeah, like he had really locked in the sound in the last room we were using for a control room. And then having to get set up in a new space kind of threw him for a loop because it wasn’t as good of a space sonically, so he had to go back over things a lot. I think ultimately I don’t feel bad about the fact that it took so long because time became so meaningless during quarantine. There was no reason to rush through it because we weren’t going to do anything with it until now anyway, when the world sort of [came] back to life. It feels like it was as natural a timeline as it was going to be.

Tone Madison: Was having that overarching stability shaken up the impetus to move from Minneapolis to Madison?

Hannah Porter: We had almost moved two years before quarantine.

Ronnie Lee: We almost did, but wound up not. We had a hard time finding a place. We also had this crazy thing [with an] exorcism house.

Tone Madison: Exorcism house?

Ronnie Lee: We came down here a couple times to look at houses. And the one we were looking at, we showed up and the lady was super nice. It was really weird. There was a sign on the front of the house. It was at the end of this really long road where there was the last house and then it was just [a] wooded area. I was like, “Oh, that could be cool” and it had this big duck in the back and everything. But the house had this “No Firearms Inside” sign on it. Which is fine, we don’t own firearms. But still, like not something you typically see on a random house. Like, “leave the guns outside, guys.” Like, this is weird.  And there was a big metal door on the front of the house.  And the lady was like, “Oh, yeah, the last person that rented this from me…”  She didn’t know they had done any of this, but it was the Catholic Church who was renting this house forever.

And then we see the inside of it.

They had literally built, out of plywood, they had built a house within the house. I can’t overstate how fucking crazy it was. I haven’t even seen movie sets like this. Every room had a plywood room built within it. Plexiglass where windows would be. Cameras in the upper corners of the rooms. Even going down in the basement same thing; rooms within rooms. And we were like “What… what’s going on here?” And she was like, “Oh yeah, they had this woman living here that had some problems and they put all this stuff in so that she wouldn’t punch holes in the walls.” But the really crazy thing is, even the stove, you know those storage units that have metal pull-downs? The stove had one of those built around it so she couldn’t set the house on fire. The one bedroom was the control room, and it still had two monitors.

Hannah Porter: [For all] the cameras.

Ronnie Lee: And the bedroom door had a plexiglass window in it, so this person could barricade themselves in their room and monitor. There was a pass-through window in the bedroom too, so somebody could bring them lunch [and this person would] not have to go through the house but could [get handed the] lunch through the window. It was fucking weird. It raised so many questions of, like, “Why did the Catholic Church choose to do this for this one person?” Because this is like $70,000 or something worth of work that’s put into the house. And they were undoing all of it.

Emili Earhart: It was Jesus’ great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great granddaughter. [All laughing.]

Ronnie Lee: There was a weird vibe in that place. Even the ceilings in the basement, I remember it needed to have a drop ceiling because of the plywood rooms inside of the rooms. I remember there was plexiglass, little plexiglass windows, so that the lights in the ceiling could still come through into the room. Never seen anything like it.

Emili Earhart: Which horror movie is this reminding me of the most?

Ronnie Lee: On the one wall there was, they had painted, like used that chalkboard paint, to make a big chalkboard thing. There were drawings that looked like they’d been done by children all over it. But obviously by the same person. It was weird. So we were like, “We can’t rent this place.”

Hannah Porter: Also she had no idea when the renovation was actually going to be done. And you had an exact start date for the job. It wasn’t gonna line up.

Ronnie Lee: We couldn’t chance it. And there’s no way that place wasn’t fucking haunted or cursed or something. No way.

Hannah Porter: So anyway, things fell apart for that moving scenario. [All laughing.] And then the next year quarantine hit. Life was already put on hold, so it was easier. [Ronnie] was unemployed at that point, through quarantine. So it was more of a blank slate opportunity already for us to make the move. And he found a job at the university and there was an open space at Good Style Shop for me to join there. So things actually came together this time. 

A still from the music video for "Convene" shows an image of guitarist/vocalist Ronnie Lee bathed in reds, and depicted in multiple overlays on the left hand side, while his creative and romantic partner, bassist/vocalist Hannah Porter is shown in blues on the right hand side, also in multiple overlays. Porter's looking to the left of the screen, while Lee is shown playing a Fender Jazzmaster, his head down.
A still from Cult Of Lip’s “Convene” music video.

Tone Madison: Hannah, you said you were writing lyrics but then you hit a wall, are you primarily the one writing lyrics for Cult Of Lip or is that split?

Hannah Porter: At this point. Not necessarily by intention either. It’s sort of just… once I joined, Ronnie had been writing and singing everything. Then it slowly morphed because he was like “I’d like to be able to focus on guitar and all the pedaling and not doing all of the things.” And writing melodies and singing comes very naturally to me, so it was just sort of an unintentional falling into things, but he’s allowed to write if he wants to! [Laughing.] It kind of just happened I guess. I get ideas, they pop into my head. And I’m like “Oh, I have a melody for this for sure. I know exactly how this sounds in my head.”

Ronnie Lee: Even with the new album, there were a couple songs that I had ideas for the lyrics or melodies, but Hannah had ideas before I did and I liked her ideas more, so I was like “Well, fuck it, let’s just go with that!” So it was very organic, not intentionally planned.

Tone Madison: For Marsha, was there a central narrative conceit for the record?

Ronnie Lee: Not really, we just kept adding songs. It was going to be an EP at first, but then we had so much more time. It was going to be five tracks.

Hannah Lee: Yeah, [so it was like] why not go for our first full-length? Writing lyrics is a weird thing to me where it’s not something that comes naturally. In our last band back in Minneapolis, I pushed myself more and more to write lyrics for the songs I was writing music for. I was in a band with my brother.

Ronnie Lee: Brilliant Beast. 

Hannah Porter: He’s a creative writing major, so he just had notebooks filled with words. For the longest time that band was me writing music to words that he had, and then editing down those words and being like “Sorry, you can’t have this many words, it’s taking up my red pen.” And it worked for a while but it was sort of counterintuitive to how I write. Again, the way we structure things is: [Ronnie] records a demo, I find a bass line from within that, it starts to pull together as a song. The way my brain works with hearing music is: I come up with a melody, if that melody percolates in my head, I start to get phrasing in the melody, which then turns into “hmm, what sort of phrasing and general vowels sounds sound like a good way to convey this melody?” Then I force myself to write a melody based on that.

It’s very backwards from having a notebook full of lyrics to then write songs to. It’s also convenient for writing this type of music, where the words are not exactly the most important part that you’re hearing. That’s a different sort of evolution to how I write, and that has been nice, working with Ronnie in a way where that feels like a natural songwriting process. Building up some of the lyrics, because they’re the last part anyway. I kind of had to force myself to write them all at the same time. I wouldn’t say I went into it consciously with any sort of cohesive theme. But just for the nature of the fact that [the lyrics were being written while we were] living through quarantine and living through a period of our lives where everything was being shaken up [and] going through a really big change and all this stuff… I think there may be, unintentionally, certain thematic elements that came together for what I was writing, but it wasn’t conscious. 

I’m not naturally a words person. That’s not the first [thing], it’s always going to be words that are pushed into the melodic phrase or an idea I have. That’s part of why it takes me so long to write lyrics, because, like, this very last thing to come in, [the words] have to fit into the idea that’s already stuck in my head. Because I get very attached once I hear a melody with what we’ve already recorded. Once it’s there, I’m attached. [It’s like] whatever I come up with pretty much has to fit into this song. [Laughing.] During the recording process [Ronnie] helped me work through a couple of things. [He was like] “Maybe this note should be here instead of here, because it records better and comes across better.” Ultimately, words were the last [bit] of the record.

Tone Madison: At what point did Terrance join the band?

Ronnie Lee: Oh! We were going to ask [Terrance] to join anyway, but then we got a show opportunity at Cactus [Club in Milwaukee] and we were just like, “So, hey, do you want to drum?”

Terrance Barrett: I think the first time you were looking at coming to Madison, you’d kind of floated the idea. But it didn’t materialize. But then we started talking more regularly and the Cactus Club show came up, so.

Hannah Porter: And we knew we were going to be involved helping you with the Glen anyway, so it was all kind of chill.

Terrance Barrett: Yeah, the only other band I’d really drummed in at that point was Telechrome. So I was eager.

Ronnie Lee: Oh! I remember Ken [Sabbar] was at Cactus with us when we got the email, and I was like “Oh, I guess we gotta figure out a band,” and Ken was like “Oh! Let me text Terrance.” And then within an hour you were like, “I’ll be in the band.” That was super fun.

Terrance Barrett: Yeah, it just kind of worked out. And I’m like Hannah in that my big thing is performing, more than anything else. So any chance I get to go up in front of a crowd of people with new music and a new group of people and fall on my face a bit, it’s fun. It just worked out. It’s been cool getting a different vibe. I’m not on any of the records and the other people that are on the records, are people I respect eternally. Eric, Ronnie.

Hannah Porter: We’d been band friends for a few years before moving, because we’d played with Telechrome and Heat Death.

Terrance Barrett: So definitely getting it more. Like, “It’s not a nebulous spectrum; these are the parts” was definitely a learning curve. But still having the freedom to bring a little of my own vibe to it. I had like, a lack of super-technical drumming skills more than anything else, but it’s a good vibe. And all really good people that I really gravitate towards, and that’s the most important thing to me. It is just: who are the people? Who are the personalities in the project? I don’t know. So much of what you do in a band is not playing.

Tone Madison: Oof. Yes.

Hannah Porter: It’s how you gel with people. If you’re gonna spend time in a van with people, you gotta be able to handle them.

Terrance Barrett: And that’s always been a little more interesting to me. So, naturally, knowing Hannah and Ronnie, I really felt good about the opportunity and joining them in a creative space directly.

Tone Madison: When was that Cactus show?

Hannah Porter: October 2021. Wow. Time moves so strangely.

Tone Madison: October 2021, Terrance joins on drums. When did Emili come into the fold?

Hannah Porter: So, Ken [Sabbar] played a couple shows with us [after Terrance joining]. Which were that [Cactus Club] October show, and then December that year, we played at X-Ray Arcade. And then, over the next few months, Ken was in a different place and couldn’t commit to the schedule we were on. We started to re-evaluate things over the winter. I think we were going on a tour that following April, to Seattle and back. We ended up doing that as a three piece. Then in May, we were playing [a run of shows with] A Place To Bury Strangers, so that’s when we asked Emili to join. That was quite the entry into the band.

Emili Earhart: Entry at the Entry.

Hannah Porter: May of 2022 was when [Emili] joined.

Tone Madison: If memory serves correct, Emili, you were technically doing what I’m doing right now.

Emili Earhart: Yeah, I was doing this interview [for Tone Madison as a freelancer]. I don’t know how far I even got transcribing [that interview], because within a week a lot of logistics were changing. I think [Cult Of Lip] had asked me to play that [Seattle] tour. And I had just said yes to playing with some other people. It was overlapping too much, so I had to say no to that. I was really excited when [Ronnie and Hannah] moved to town, because they were band friends.

Hannah Porter: We had played shows together and you were our number one Madison fanboy.

Emili Earhart: Yeah, I loved [Sleep Deceiver]. If they played in Madison, even if I was like “I can’t go to this show,” I would just go and stand in the back for their set and then leave. I always wanted to see y’all. I was just excited for you to move here, because we were all friends. And I was just excited that the band was [continuing post-move.] But then [Terrance] was always on my bucket list of people to play with, so. It worked out pretty cool. Nobody was making music like [Terrance] in town, [whether it was] Carbon Bangle or [Terrance’s] solo stuff.

Hannah Porter: It’s been a long process, but it’s also felt like a very natural evolution. That thing [Terrance] was talking about, about meshing personalities, I have people who I am very close friends with that I’d never want to be in a band with at all. Or I have friends and I love them dearly but don’t share their taste in music, you know? There are so many variables. I feel like this has been the natural evolution of the best of all of those things. We all have our own taste in music but all [of it is] overlapping in the right areas. I feel like all of us have very similar values when it comes to being in a band and playing shows and what we care about the most. All being on the same page in the ways that matter most. That’s been a very natural evolution of settling into this as the lineup.

Terrance Barrett: That first tour that we all played [that routed through Seattle], that was such a great opportunity. We all liked each other but had never spent [that much time] together. I was very excited about it. There’s always that voice in the back of your head like “Am I [sure about] any of this?” But right away, it was like “Oh, this is going to be very good.”

Ronnie Lee: We had so much downtime, too. That [tour] was half-tour, half-road trip. We found out we all loved really weird roadside motels. Unique, cool situations.

Terrance Barrett: The downtime helped. Not a lot of stress. I’m sure there was something [dispiriting] that happened.

Hannah Porter: Maybe it was just the Seattle festival itself going awfully. But as far as being on the road, it was [great].

Ronnie Barrett: The camaraderie was [great], and we were always together. Even that one really annoying thing that happened at Seagaze, we were all on the same page about how to handle it, so it was really good. That’s something I really value in musical projects: personal connection. We probably have all played with musicians of varying levels of skill and at the end of the day, skill only matters so much.

Hannah Porter: There are other things that go into being a band.

Terrance Barrett: You can always address skill on your own time, but personality and personal connection is much bigger. 

The members of Cult Of Lip's current lineup are shown laughing at Mobius Glen. From Left to Right: Ronnie Lee, Hannah Porter, Terrance Barrett, and Emili Earhart. Trees are visible out of the window that's behind him. Positioned near the window's upper lefthand corner is a stained glass lamp that was built by Lee.
Cult Of Lip laughing at Mobius Glen.

Tone Madison: And that connection’s always going to color the music itself, to some degree.

Hannah Porter:
If you’re at each other’s throats for the six hours a day, it’s going to translate onstage. That’s the biggest thing with tour. The actual playing of music is, I think, 25% of being on tour? [Laughing.] There’s a lot of other shit to factor in. [We’ve done] a lot of Milwaukee shows. We did that A Place To Bury Strangers show up in Minneapolis. We haven’t done too much road time as a four piece yet, but this fall we’ll be playing out a bit more.

Ronnie Lee: Yeah, we’re on the road every weekend for a month right around there.

Tone Madison: There’s also another divide to navigate when considering personnel fit, which I always boil down to playing with feeling versus playing with precision. Terrance, you were talking earlier about not being the most technically accomplished drummer out there, but you—and everyone else in the band—plays with a palpable sense of feeling. And you can still do that skillfully, but when you play with someone who operates from the mindset of “we need to be practicing to a click track because I do not want to go off-tempo,” it’s a different world entirely. You’re all skilled musicians, but it does feel like Cult Of Lip errs more towards the “feel-first” side of the equation.

Hannah Porter:
I could not be in a band with someone [who insisted on a click track regimen].

Ronnie Lee: Big time.

Hannah Porter: [It’s also about] how your skills come together as a group, it doesn’t matter how skilled you are individually. If you can’t mesh who you’re playing with, then it doesn’t matter. I have been in a band where it took a lot of time to mesh together. People have to understand that you’re not the only person playing. Not everyone is soloing at the same time. You have to learn how to scale things to be relevant to what you’re playing.

Emili Earhart: It’s an active listening experience more than anything. I’ve been in bands where it’s like you play the parts, and obviously you have to be listening the whole time, but you have to remember what to play. With [Cult Of Lip] I’m playing pitch wheel and the volume knob more than any note! [Laughing.] Just taking yourself out of it and listening for how to actually fit in with the wall of sound. We’ve been [practicing in the Glen] before where certain partials are sticking out way too much and then playing at a venue, it’s like “Oh, now it’s this totally different thing.” So it’s making little adjustments instead of playing complicated parts or whatever.

Hannah Porter: I know for you this has been a different context of being a synth or piano player in a band.

Emili Earhart: Yeah, but at the same time, it’s very complementary to what I’ve done with jamming and droning. Playing very, very little and listening. Fitting into a pocket. So it’s a fun medium. Because it’s in a band setting, but physically less of what I’m doing.

Ronnie Lee: We are a 100%-feel band, as opposed to skill. 

Tone Madison: It’s empathetic musical reaction. Listening to each other, finding ways to complement each other. Having enough cognizance to be aware of the intersectional viewpoints of your emotional and stylistic overlaps. And then articulating those points to fit those needs.

Hannah Porter:
I think there’s so much about the style of music too. If you want to boil it down to the single word of shoegaze. I think we all agree that we spread out [from] that definition. But just in that very general sense of like, it’s a genre where there’s no one thing that is the main [thing]. It’s not like singer-songwriter music, or it’s not guitar-wank solo music. Adding a synth was a very atmospheric choice. It wasn’t about, like, “Oh, we’re becoming like [a] synth-pop band.” Everything has to blend on the same plane. It’s not one person [going] “Oh, this is the most important aspect.” I think that forces everyone to be in the same position of active listening. It all has to blend together in a way that’s complementary, where it’s not one thing that is the most significant thing that’s happening. That does require an extra level of connection I think, [the ability to] listen to each other [at a meaningful level].

Ronnie Lee: It’s nice with this lineup, too, where we came to do it with the album already done, songs already done. Where [Terrance and Emili] learned the parts, but we know we’re all on the same page enough that when things are changed, they’re complementary. If something has a different vibe, it’s not going to sound like a sore thumb. Where all of the sudden it’s like “What is this synth-bass solo happening?” Anything [Terrance and Emili] do is going to fit and be complementary.

Hannah Porter: [And] having that feeling in a longer view, of like, a year from now. When we’re ready to start writing totally new songs. I have faith in [Terrance and Emili] being a fitting group to write new music. Where it just happens naturally. At least, I hope [Terrance and Emili] are down to help write new songs when we get to that point! [Laughing.] I feel like that could be fun. 

A wide view of Mobius Glen's control room shows an assortment of recording equipment, a small penguin statue perched on a desk in the left of the image, and a window near the back wall. All of the playback devices are near the window.

Terrance Barrett: It’s honest communication, too. If something doesn’t fit, we talk about it right away. No one’s married to anything. Like I’m not married to a drum [part]… I mean, sometimes, I’ll try to sneak it back in there. [Laughing.] There’s an understanding. We all know we’re all growing together, and growing the project together. We also know where some of the territory is where it’s, like, “Well, these songs are written.” That songwriting territory, I’m going to try to complement that as best as I can while bringing whatever I can to it and accentuating little things here and there. It’s about communication, too.

Hannah Porter: It’s finding that middle ground of you bringing in your own feel and skill and sound while respecting the fact that we made intentional choices when we wrote the songs. Like, “this drum part was decided because this is what we decided the backbone of the song would be.” So to a certain extent, it does need to cleave to that. But obviously, you are your own drummer. And, you know, [we should let that play a factor].

Tone Madison: Terrance and Emili, you two came in at the last stage of the album coming together. Were you playing faithfully to those parts or adjusting them to fit your style more?

Terrance Barrett: Both. I listened to the songs, but there was a several-month gap between when [I received the files and] the album was finalized.

Ronnie Lee: Yeah, I sent you the stems I think.

Terrance Barrett: I listened to everything and I played absolutely everything. The entire catalog. Because I was like “Well, I just want to be ready.” I don’t know what we’re going to play live, or what we’re not. And I’d seen enough Cult Of Lip shows where I had a vibe of certain songs that would probably stick around. But I was trying to learn the parts verbatim. Then as I got more comfortable, I started trying to add a little bit here and there of my own flair.

Hannah Porter: And again, the communication during practice was like “This is a really significant part. This is important. This is significant. But maybe not this part.” It was really like figuring out what ultimately has to be here and where [we could] go from there. Because some things are crucial to keeping the feel of the song, and then building off of that.

Terrance Barrett: And they had been hearing the songs for so long, that we’re hearing them from different angles. I’m hearing them from focusing on the drums. And it means something and it builds a certain way to me that then sitting on the architecture of the piece [and considering] why the parts matter was the fun of rehearsal in the beginning. Learning the dynamics of the tracks. We had the parts down fairly quickly but then fine-tuning the dynamics thing like that. We really explored a lot.

Ronnie Lee: And we’ve always been super intentional with writing rhythms and stuff.

Tone Madison: I can hear that in the music. Emili, was that experience similar for you with the synth parts?

Emili Earhart: They sent me the stems for the synth parts and the songs for the new album. I was using the Alesis Micron. It was [a process of] figuring out what are the parts, what are the notes, but synthesizing different patches to it. So the stems were really helpful. I could never fucking tell if it was [Ronnie playing guitar] or the synthesizer! [Laughing.] For all the older songs, I met up with you all.

Hannah Porter: Yeah, we kind of figured out ways to apply synth to the older stuff that didn’t have any synth on the recording. Like, “Okay, what are the root notes we want to pull out of here. What would be a complementary tone?” 

Ronnie Lee: That’d be a really good example of like-minded players going by feel, too. We just kind of knew that whatever part you’d come up with for a song… it was going to fit. It was good.

Hannah Porter: We trust your ear!

Emili Earhart: In “A Glow,” there’s a second guitar that comes in with tremolo, so I do that towards the end.

Ronnie Lee: I used to run a loop pedal, and a few different songs would have weird noise parts that would happen here and there. Other things I could not replicate with a stereo rig. I’d use the loop pedal for those. But now Emili can just do it on the synth, so that’s been really nice.

Emili Earhart: It’s fun! I like doing that in different bands, too. A lot of times I’m playing people’s music that I didn’t write, or is a studio thing and I have to do it live and feel like a little engineer or something. [Laughing.] Synthesizing it all and then storing it and changing the name on the interface so you can see what song it is. It was fun preparing [to play] for [Cult Of Lip].

Tone Madison: So you haven’t written anything all together because you’ve been focused on completing the arc of Marsha. Have you started the process of accumulating song ideas for Marsha‘s follow-up?

Ronnie Lee:
I have a handful of stuff laying around in voice memos. Guitar stuff.

Hannah Porter: He always has a failsafe of demos saved up.

Ronnie Lee: I haven’t had the chance to [focus on those]. I’ve already started the process of listening back to them, realizing which ones are worth keeping. So I’ve already filtered all that out. But sometime, probably between now and spring, I’ll probably run some demos with that stuff.

Hannah Porter: And that’s generally how we build up songs is he will just get a skeleton [going] that’s a really basic drum machine track, playing with some guitar stuff. And that’s a skeleton starting point. And then I’ll build a bass line out of whatever guitar noise and stuff is going on. Start to just [figure it out from there]. 

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